Arms and the Woman: War, Gender, and Literary Representation

By Helen M. Cooper; Adrienne Auslander Munich et al. | Go to book overview
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their activities are ridiculous and even dangerous, their movement hysterical rather than ecstatic. When men organize collectively for war, they provide themselves with an avenue for transcendence of self. Militant women can create only a "little vortex"; military men can achieve "heaven."

Sinclair's attitude toward World War I was not unique to her, but not all prowar feminists went to such lengths to justify war in general, and her explicit contrast between feminism and war suggests the dangers of a feminist acceptance of certain cultural assumptions. In The Tree of Heaven we see a rejection, even a denial, of the satisfactions of collective action celebrated by many of her contemporaries and by feminists today. Even more important, Sinclair privileges traditional male-centered ideas of what sort of collective activity really counts by denying the importance of struggle in the private sphere. In Sinclair's view, as in the Homeric community Hartsock describes, the supposedly private values challenged by the feminist movement mean little beside the public world exemplified by warfare, and by maintaining the Homeric ideal of a heroic transcendence attainable only through battle, she also maintains the secondary position of women. At best, Sinclair hints that, by joining men in battle, women may hope to achieve an ecstasy similar to those her male characters experience. But by failing--in fact, refusing--to question the basic premise that war is the only real site of such ecstasy, she relegates the very movement she has championed, as well as the art she practices, to a position of triviality.


I am extremely grateful to Mary Lou Emery for her thoughtful reading of earlier versions of this essay; to the University of Wisconsin-Madison Women's Studies Program for support and community; and to Nancy St. Clair, who lent me the book.

This is the explanation that Olive Schreiner gives in her 1911 work of feminist theory, Woman and Labor, and reiterates in her posthumous novel, From Man to Man.
In the 1889 "Appeal against Female Suffrage," for example, Mrs. Humphry Ward and over a hundred other prominent women signed a letter that argued, among other things, that "women's direct participation [in Parliament, commerce, and the armed forces] is made impossible" by innate disability or "by strong formations of custom and habit resting ultimately upon physical difference. . . . Therefore it is not just to give to women di


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